Uncle Cleon Thayer established a sawmill near Centralia, West Virginia. His brother Creston lived in nearby Silica and ran the post office and country store. One or both urged Charles (my Dad) to come to Silica to meet Martha Balli, who taught grade school near her brother John's farm.
Martha's folks came from Switzerland in 1870, paused for five years near Sugar Creek or Dover, Ohio, then traveled to Helvetia, West Virginia with a group lured to the Alpine-like environment by the cordial welcome of the settlers and the royal reception of the land agents. They home-steaded an area between Silica, Pickens, and Hacker Valley. Large beautiful birch, maple, chestnut and other hardwood trees covered the mountains, but when time came for farming, the dirt was scant and stones abundant. In later years, the State of West Virginia established Holly River Park between their homestead and Hacker Valley, which surrounded Uncle John's farm.
Mom and Dad were married in 1910 at Buckwheat Church near Grandma's farm. Over the years they lived in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, where I was born on October 25, 1912, moved to nearby Oil City, and then settled near Spruce, Michigan.
Railroads were "the" thing in those days and Dad started as a telegraphist and then later worked as an engine hostler, seeing that the tender was full of coal, water and oil for the engine. Once when moving the engine from one place to another, Dad nearly ran into another engine that was up on jacks. There was no air pressure for the brakes and Dad simply stopped the engine by putting it in reverse. For awhile he was a fireman on a freight engine and, lastly, he became a baggage car operator, sorting the mail and packages. Mom frequently took me to the depot when Dad's train was due. He'd wave to us from the door of the baggage car as the train came into Oil City and we'd walk home together.
In summers Mom and I would go by train to Silica to see Grandma Balli and Uncle Creston Thayer. On our last trip in 1922, as Uncle Creston stood on the railroad platform next to his store, the train "choo-chooed" by Silica, which was just a little whistle stop. The conductor pulled on the whistle cord for several minutes, but the train was late and the engineer was determined not to stop. Finally the conductor pulled the emergency cord and stopped the train. As the conductor stepped down to the berm, he almost fell into a creek it was so dark. After moving the train a bit, he said, "This is Silica." Mom was carrying my ten-month-old sister Mary plus two or three suitcases. She said, "No go!" So the conductor forced the engineer to back the train up nearly a half mile until it came to Silica. Uncle Creston was surprised to see the train come back. We stayed the night with Uncle Creston and in the morning I investigated a covered bridge, the creek, and the five or six homes or shanties on the hillside. At one of the shanties, a wrinkled old woman was sitting on a rocker on a porch smoking a corncob pipe. I guess she was the first hillbilly I saw.
Uncle Andrew Balli, who lived with Grandma, met us around noon and with his team and wagon hauled us over a steep and rocky road to Grandma's farm. Andrew and Grandma worked with a strong will, raising cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens. Because they had a small barn, they were forced to make haystacks on the hilly fields, using a pole to keep the hay from rolling down the hill. Somehow they anchored the pole, perhaps by digging a hole in the ground and bracing it with stones.
Some of the hillsides were too steep to cultivate, others had thin soil tillable for hay and grain but were full of stones. To clear a field for farming, trees were felled, roots removed and stones tossed downhill. Stones were sometimes piled on and around a big rock and at the bottom of the field would be a stone fence. Split log or rail fences were used in other places.
Many of the farmers, like Uncle Andrew, used a horse-powered thrasher to thresh the grain. A horse would be hitched to a long pole attached to a capstan. A pulley on the bottom of the capstan drove a belt that operated the thrasher. The horse circled the capstan, stepping over a low box covering the belt.
Grandma Balli spoke only German though her twelve sturdy children spoke German and English. She made cheese (which was delicious when served with fried potatoes and meat) and churned butter using a tall barrel churn that had a wooden rod through the lid and a dasher plate on the bottom of the rod. I found the job of pushing the rod up and down tiresome after only a few minutes.
Grandma also spun flax into towels, which I thought were very scratchy. She had a loom and Mom would make rag rugs when we visited. On some days, Mom would card wool, disentangling and arranging the fibers into little batts. She would then use the spinning wheel to spin the batts into yarn. A spool pulled the fibers through the spinner and when the spool was full, the yarn was wrapped into a skein or rolled into balls. Grandma`s determination and resourcefulness flowed through all her children.
A spring flowed from the hill near Grandma's home. A big tree shaded the spring and a pool three feet deep collected the water from the small rill. Crocks of butter and a pitcher of milk were kept cool in the pool.
Grandma's feather tick mattress would swallow me up. On hot evenings my back and sides would perspire as would my tummy. On cool nights I used a comforter and that was wool. Mostly I was uncomfortable in that bed.
Uncle Rudolph also stayed with Grandma, but often worked "outside" when there was slack time at the farm. He ran the blacksmith shop and I loved to watch the sparkling forge, the anvil and the sledge as he hammered on a hot horseshoe while shoeing a horse. I was amazed that he could pick up a horse's foot without being kicked as he trimmed the hoof and drove the nails in place.
One evening we quietly went out to the fields with his 30/30 rifle to shoot woodchuck. We saw one, but it also saw us and whistled and dropped into its burrow.
With his team and wagon, Uncle Andrew would drive to Uncle John's farm (now in Holly River Park) and also over across Silica toward Helvetia to the farm of Mother's sister's, the Paulis.
One time Rover, Grandma's dog, followed us. While the team was resting, Rover caught up with us. His long tongue was dripping and he was panting. Uncle Andrew put him on the wagon. Now, riding on a wagon going over rocks is no fun even if there is some hay to cushion the bumps, but Rover did not seem to mind.
The Paulis had a neat, well kept farm and good shops where they made farm wagons. They had a lathe that was operated by a foot treadle. Once a stick was put on it for me and I fashioned a chair rung.
Sometimes I watched them install steel rims on wooden wheels. The wheels were laid on the ground and braced in place. Meanwhile steel rims were put over wood chips on the ground and a fire was started. The heat expanded the steel rims or "tires". The men used tongs to place the hot tire on the wheel and drove it on with hammers. Once the tire was in place, water was poured on to stop the burning of the wooden wheel and to cool the tire.
We usually stayed two or three days with the Paulis' or at Uncle John's farm. Since Uncle Andrew returned the same day he brought us, we would walk back to Grandmas. Mom might have been accustomed to long walks, but, for a five or six year old, three or four miles was a long long walk. My sister Mary Elizabeth was born on October 2, l921 in Oil City. Consequently, on our last trip the Pauli's or Uncle John brought us back to Grandma`s home with their team and wagon.
In the National Geographic of June 1976 on pages 780 & 781, I was surprised to see pictures of Uncle John's daughters, my cousins Anna, Gertrude, and Frieda. I realized it had been 54 years since I had been at their farm. Seeing this prodded me to make a return visit. So in late September 1976, Eva, my wife, and I drove our motorhome to Uncle John's farm.
The farm is now in Holly River Park. We entered the park after dark, but even with no light we found a spot to camp. In the morning a ranger gave us directions to the farm. We spent several nostalgic days with my cousins.
In my cousin's pickup truck we drove to Grandma's homestead. All of her buildings were gone, but we could see the foundations hewed out of rock for the cow and horse stables. I did not wish to wander into the thicket at the spring or around the foundations of the barn without heavy shoes as rattlesnakes are common. Apples were ripe on the trees in the orchard and we picked a few.
I wanted to go to Silica so my cousins drove us until the road was no longer passable due to bushes, trees, mire, and stones. Several of us walked a mile to Silica. The covered bridge over the creek and Uncle Creston's store were gone. Coal freight trains had made the railroad rails shiny. I noted that it was two miles from Grandma's farm to Silica and thought about the times I had walked it as a youngster.
Next - - - 3. Oil City
4. Boat Trip
5. Chris's Home
6. Hubbard Lake
7. Hunting and Fishing
8. Our Farm
10. The Depression and the 30's
11. Michigan State University
13. Our Home
16. The Tropics
17. With The Kids
18. It Is Written